Trends in the Retail Sector - January 2013

By Jessica Chevalier


The retail world is highly competitive, and, like restaurants, nightclubs and hotels, retailers must keep their facilities in good condition if they want to compete in the marketplace. A store that looks worn and dingy is a turn-off for shoppers. Customers want to make purchases in locations that feel luxurious, cool, edgy or authentic, not dated or shabby. 

If a customer is to part with the dollars they’ve worked for, they want not just a product in a bag but a good feeling to go along with it. The right environment—combined with customer service and other elements—is a big part of that good feeling.

When Floor Focus last produced a report on the retail store planning sector, in January 2009, it was languishing but had not yet hit bottom. That low point came in 2010 when the sector reached historic lows. Now, according to McGraw-Hill Dodge Analytics, the retail sector is on the upswing, with $14.2 billion worth of projects in 2012.

How flooring impacts retail sales is hard to put a finger on, but it certainly goes a long way toward setting a tone and reinforcing a brand. Says New York based Ed Calabrese, retail group creative director at Mancini-Duffy, “Flooring is one of the most important components in the mood the retailer is trying to create.” 

Los Angeles based Kevin Horn, vice president at RTKL Associates, says that creating a mood in a retail space is “about trying to create a different experience than the customer has had. Hopefully, this leads to more customer loyalty, which is the end goal.” This is significant for the retailer; it’s not just about one sale but about creating an environment that the customer wants to come back to again and again. 

Horn often designs malls and mixed-use areas, and he is seeing a shift in food courts toward creating areas that are more hospitality-like, rather than grab-and-go. In terms of flooring, this means a departure from standard 8”x8” or 12”x12” tile set on a grid to something more upscale-feeling, welcoming and warm. Says Horn, “We have replaced this with any combination of staggered rectilinear 12”x24” porcelain tiles with natural finishes that mimic stone, quartz-based engineered tiles that have a variety of color and aggregate texture for accents, and in some cases wood or natural stone in special seating or focal node areas.” These changes bring with them the incorporation of different seating types and, perhaps, even communal tables. This is the common practice in Australian malls, which often include indoor/outdoor seating and tenants like wine bars, and the trend is becoming more widespread in the U.S. Of course, the hope in all this is that customers will see the food court as a place to relax and linger, spend money and visit regularly. 

There are standards that designers often follow in retail establishments, but many of these design guidelines are being challenged today. For instance, department store shoe sections traditionally feature luxe carpet with thick padding, not for the comfort of the customers as they try on shoes, but to keep the soles of the shoes they are selling from being scratched. Today, both the retailer and the customer are more comfortable with slightly imperfect soles, so designers are choosing flooring solutions to achieve a particular design style.

Last year, Charles Sparks + Co., based in Westchester, Illinois, was part of the design team for the $400 million renovation of Macy’s Herald Square, the largest retail project in the U.S. in 2012, according to Architectural Record. Cynthia Passarelli, director of Resource Design Studio at Charles Sparks + Co., and the Sparks’ team were tasked with designing the 39,000 square foot shoe salon, which carries only women’s shoes. Considering the store’s iconic status, the team wanted to create a heritage feel in the space. To that end, they chose 4”x24” planks of solid white oak and installed the flooring in a herringbone pattern. At transition points, the pattern was changed to a random plank design to create a subtle threshold. The team is pleased with the way the design contemporized the space while using heritage materials and patterning to create a warm feel. They also believe that the wood will patina and wear well. 

This flagship store is very important to the Macy’s brand, and it sets the tone for the material selections in other stores; but that doesn’t mean that the exact specifications will trickle down. “The flagship store is special. This is the largest department store in the world. It’s a store that is featured in movies. It has a different vocabulary because of the location and the customer. The ideas and design philosophy will trickle down, but the materials will fit the budgets of each community. The designer’s job is really to create an elegant white box for a space that is always changing.”

One flooring product that Macy’s always utilizes is 18”x18” polished white porcelain. Likewise, Neiman Marcus, another of Sparks’ clients, always uses 12”x12” natural stone, which is polished to create a clean, upscale look. Both Starbucks and Best Buy, more clients of Sparks’, have trademark flooring looks as well. Starbucks stores typically feature a mottled warm porcelain, often with wood tones, and Best Buy has a standard carpet tile that it specifies for its locations. These standardized specifications set a brand style, encouraging customers to feel comfortable in whatever location they enter and, therefore, building loyalty.

Styling today is more mutable that it once was. Whereas slick and polished was the retail look of the past, today, according to Calabrese, “Things may be looking more natural, even colorations. Finishes are the colors of sandstone, travertine, limestone—there is no limit to the use of limestone. There is much more wood, interesting woods, reclaimed woods. You see the contrast of highly contemporary architectural spaces with well-worn, broken-in floors.” Calabrese notices these trends in the flagship New York installations of European clothing designers. “Stone is being used extensively, but it has a patina to it as opposed to being a hard, glossy, polished look.”

Traditionally, the circulation area of a department store was always stone or wood, and the rest of the store was carpeted in broadloom. Now, departments are often wood, porcelain, stone or carpet tile. According to Calabrese, this is based solely on current fashion, not on the performance or maintenance profile of one material over another.

Many stores use flooring to reinforce a brand. Apple’s Italian stone, the distressed wood of Anthropology, the black maple of Abercrombie & Fitch—these floors make a statement about the retailer and set a mood for the shoppers and staff, but that doesn’t mean that a brand isn’t willing to play with its style every once in a while to make a statement about a particular location. 

For the Bloomingdale’s Santa Monica Place design, Calabrese took the iconic black and white checkerboard pattern and reinterpreted it in stenciled concrete. Says Calabrese, “The store was a one-off, supposed to be a little bohemian or avant-garde for its own sake. We were looking at ideas of having a lot of contrast, considering the aisle in the cosmetics department, which has always been black and white tile, and we felt that it might not be right. We thought about leaving just the concrete and glazing it, but then started considering stenciling. It was an interesting way to bring new life to an icon.” 

For secondary floors, retailers expect a floorcovering to last five years. And, ideally, an aisle will last eight to ten years, but sometimes designs are out of style before they are worn out. In good news, Calabrese reports that retailers are now getting smarter, planning stores with possible future renovations in mind, so that they don’t have to rip out a perfectly good floor due to style or renovation changes. When they do renovate, they often keep the same main circulation area, to retain that hard surface flooring. According to Horn, floors get changed out equally for reasons of style and traffic wear. 

“For large retailers like Macy’s, there are certain strategies to pull a customer into the space,” explains Passarelli. These stores typically feature hard surface at the entry to handle the traffic. But the hard surface, generally polished, combined with lighting and technology also adds a wow factor. 

In more personal categories (like clothing and lingerie), the finishings portray an increased level of comfort and flooring becomes softer, pulling customers into these pockets. Unlike other retailers, Macy’s put extra attention on its fitting rooms, where many final decisions are made on personal items. In these spaces, the store uses flooring and other finishes to create a residential feel that, hopefully, eases the customer into the purchase.

Similarly, Passarelli’s team chooses residential finishes for areas in which home purchases—like appliances—are made. Wood-look porcelain is a popular choice in these areas.

Currently, Passarelli is working on Neiman Marcus’ store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, which is situated in a busy retail environment. With customers coming in off Chicago’s often wet and snowy streets, the team designed their broadloom carpet pads to have a significantly darker broadloom border to hide soiling. In addition, this border can be changed out much more easily than the field carpet. In certain areas, the team chose a patterned field carpet, which it custom colored in deeper tones to disguise soiling even more effectively. 

Typically, Passarelli has found that she isn’t so much disappointed with a flooring material as she is disappointed with the maintenance of a material. Some materials might not wear out, but they might ugly out, especially if the material requires special maintenance. Some stores would rather replace a material more frequently than care for it properly. 

Neiman Marcus is not one of these companies. The retailer has an excellent maintenance program and, when paired with apt specifications, this can lead to an exceptionally long life. Passarelli’s team chose 12”x12” slabs of polished French vanilla marble for a Neiman Marcus store in Plano, Texas when it remodeled the store 12 years ago and that material still looks good today. Passarelli credits this success to the store’s maintenance team and to the fact that a classic style was chosen. 

As is seen in other sectors, Passarelli notes an increasing interest in carpet tile from her clients. At Neiman Marcus’ fashion-forward Cusp store in Chicago, which caters to a younger demographic, Passarelli used hard surface flooring in the common area of the dressing room and chose a different color carpet tile for each private dressing area. The tiles were a better choice than broadloom for the space because they fit easily into the chopped-up format of a dressing room and because they allowed Passarelli to creatively differentiate each room with color. They also convey a fashion-forward tone that is appropriate for the feel of the store. 

The top considerations for choosing flooring on a retail project vary, in part based on what type of retail project it is. In Horn’s mall work, cost is always the driver. Right now, the majority of Horn’s jobs are repositioning/renovation projects rather than new building, and these are being completed on tight budgets. “Flooring is something that can make a significant change with a reasonably small investment,” says Horn, compared to making architectural alterations to a space or starting from scratch on a totally new structure. Even though the recession is right behind us, Horn’s clients prefer changing the flooring, ceiling, furniture, paint colors, signage and logos to starting afresh. Though flooring goes a long way to creating that fresh image, it does require that a location be shut down for a significant period of time while disposal and renovation takes place, which means lost dollars. In consideration of tight budgets, Horn is often looking for ways to refresh a space by, for instance, keeping one part of the flooring as is and changing another.

After cost, on the projects that Horn oversees, the next consideration is maintenance. The owners, who have the final say in flooring selection, rely heavily on their in-house operations teams for advice on this. In his experience as a designer, Horn has learned to avoid any floor that requires a maintenance program that differs from what the operations team is comfortable with. Cleaning procedures that are out of the norm are a frustration for the design and operations teams. From experience, Horn has learned that tiles with a fine finish often trap more dirt and therefore make a poor choice for a heavily used retail area. However, it is sometimes difficult to determine if a material will be problematic until it is in use. 

Design often comes in as the last consideration, much to Horn’s chagrin. “I am always looking for interesting materials—the latest textures, sizes and colors.”

Like Horn, Passarelli says that price is the top priority on the projects she’s designing, which is quite a bit different from how things were 20 years ago when design was the driver. Today, retailers want the same quality of design but with a budget price tag. Though it may sound counterintuitive, one source that Passarelli reaches out to when she’s seeking value is the vendor. “If you are up front with a vendor,” adds Passarelli, “they can give you advice about how to value engineer.” 

After cost, design and color are the next most important considerations, followed by durability and sustainability. Today, she says, “Sustainability is a part of our pitch, a common language. Even six years ago, it wasn’t considered. Today, it’s splattered all over the rep’s binders. It’s part of the lifestyle.”

On Calabrese’s projects, style wins out as the top priority. “Whether it’s stone or wood or carpet, that is where we begin the process,” he says. “If a material creates the right atmosphere, it helps build sales.” Next, Calabrese considers durability, based on the location and use of the floor, and then maintenance, of which he asks, “What is the least we can do to keep it looking good?”

Of course, floors actually have a practical role in retail: organizing the space, defining paths of circulation, creating a hierarchy in merchandise zones. They are a tool to communicate with the customer, facilitate the shopping process and, in the end, bring in more dollars.

Sometimes the right floor sets a backdrop upon which the design is built, and sometimes the floor makes a big design statement. In designing a new sunglasses department for Bloomingdales, Calabrese asked, “What can we do for a wow factor?” The feel of the space was supposed to be crisp and modern, so Calabrese chose a new type of floor, a vinyl impregnated composite resin that is poured in place, in a brilliant white. In spite of its bold color, the floor required little maintenance to keep it looking good, only a damp mop, so it fit the needs of the maintenance department. 

Copyright 2013 Floor Focus